Caitriona Balfe: Ireland’s secret A-lister

The Outlander star on learning fast, acting tough and growing up in Monaghan

“There’s something I learned many years ago and it sounds very silly, but it’s always stood to me.”

Caitriona Balfe is recalling a life lesson over mint tea and a pain au chocolat at a bistro in Los Feliz, near Hollywood in Los Angeles. This thing she learned came from an unlikely source: a $5 acting class she signed up to years ago. (“These are the weird things I did when I was wanting to be an actor in LA when I first got here.”) She remembers the guy who was leading the class “talking about releasing and destroying the need of whatever ‘it’ is. Whether you’re going to go in and audition, and you’re so nervous because you want people to like what you’re about to do: release and destroy the need to be liked.”

So much of what makes you crazy is just your own thoughts, right? So if you can stop that spiral at a point... That sounds so pathetic and LA

Balfe learned to give herself permission to let go of those things that tie us all in knots, to move on from feelings. “It’s something so simple and so silly, but it works for a myriad of reasons. Whatever it is … just to walk away, to let go of that.” She pauses. “So much of what makes you crazy is just your own thoughts, right? So if you can stop that spiral at a point ... ” Then the pause turns into a halt, and Balfe undercuts herself. “That sounds so pathetic and LA.”

Balfe is a star. Playing the lead role on Outlander has given her a level of fame and success that Ireland hasn't cottoned on to as much as the United States has, given that the series hasn't been on at prime time here.


Balfe has been nominated for a remarkable four Golden Globe awards in a row – she lost out only to Taraji P Henson, Claire Foy, Elisabeth Moss and Sandra Oh – cementing her status as one of the leading actresses in American television.

Outlander, a time-travel drama centring on a second World War-era nurse, Claire Randall, played by Balfe, who is transported back and forth between 18th-century Scotland and mid-20th century America – could have just been another decent historical fantasy, but the quality of the source material (Diana Gabaldon's series of novels), the quality of the cast, writing and directing, and the intense level of fandom the show enjoys make it a serious player.

It was also, essentially, Balfe's first big job, and an all-encompassing one at that. Production lasts for the guts of a year, and is now moving into its fifth series, with a sixth already assured. The production primarily films in Scotland, although it has also travelled to Prague and South Africa. Outside of Outlander, Balfe was excellent in Jodie Foster's Money Monster alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts in 2016, and later this year will be seen in James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari, a biographical drama about the literal race between car manufacturers to win Le Mans in 1966. Balfe will play Mollie Miles, wife of the racing driver and engineer Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale. Matt Damon is in there too. Good company.

‘Destined for greatness’

“Always destined for greatness,” is how one former schoolmate describes Balfe. She grew up outside Tydavnet, in Co Monaghan, and went on to study drama in DIT in Rathmines before being spotted by a model scout and embarking upon a modelling career as a teenager, becoming one of the most recognisable and in-demand models in the world. While there is no denying Balfe’s star power, in person she is incredibly understated, chilled out, devoid of ceremony. She’s so understated that I don’t even see a head turn when she enters the restaurant, as shes sits down at the table cheerily, make-up free and in casual clothes. There are zero airs and graces, no intimidation factor, just down-to-earth soundness. She rolls her own eyes at herself when she decides something she has said is “so LA” (which it barely is), gets serious when she talks about female representation on set, and is strikingly intelligent.

"The brain on her!" actor Maria Doyle Kennedy, who played the character Jocasta Cameron in the most recent, fourth series of Outlander – told me over the phone. "You always find her on set with a book. She's a ferocious reader."

Books played a large role in Balfe's upbringing. When she was about six or seven, her father, a garda, decided that the family wasn't going to have a television. For about six years, the only time she and her siblings had television at home was for two weeks at Christmas. So she read. Everything. Before she began secondary school, her favourite book was Wuthering Heights. She moved on to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Robert Pirsig. Around the time of her Leaving Cert, she was reading a lot of Ian McEwan.

Her father was in a comedy troupe, winning Scór competitions. She too gravitated towards theatre. “From a really young age I was always involved in theatre – as advanced and developed as youth theatre was in the little village I grew up in – but that was always my passion, to do that.” Why? “Probably a multitude of reasons. If my dad has some inclination towards it, there is probably something passed down ... I’m also the fourth child, so probably a lot of attention-seeking.”

But acting, she says, is also how she processes experiences, how she watches the world around her, how she understands relationships and what makes people tick. “I think it was also escapism. I grew up in the 1980s in Monaghan, where there wasn’t an awful lot of things to do. There was also a lot of bullying in the primary school that I went to. I think it was an escape to get out of where I was.” What form did that bullying take? “Let’s say being the daughter of a garda in 1980s borderland counties was not the easiest thing.”

Sixteen-hour days

Part of the reason Balfe's performance in Outlander is so convincing is because it is rooted in hard work. When the first season was ordered, the cast and crew were off shooting in Scotland relatively under the radar. Without a million eyes on her, Balfe got to exist away from the spotlight, honing her character without any distractions, without an audience and without external commentary.

“As somebody who had so little experience, it was such a gift because I really got to find my feet,” she says. Nevertheless, it was tough. “I’ve never worked so hard as I did that first year. The first six months we were doing 11-day fortnights and 16-, 17-hour days, five hours’ sleep. We just did that solidly and worked straight for a year. It was nuts.”

How does one hold things together with that level of intensity? “You don’t! I nearly lost my mind the first year. But I didn’t have anything else to do. Red wine is usually a good crutch.”

That's the beauty of television; it's the beauty of doing something in long form. You actually get to create a living being within your own mind

Her first apartment during that time had no phone reception or internet. "So I was literally eating, sleeping, living Outlander. And yeah, I nearly lost my mind, but at the same time, I think that circumstances can sometimes all conspire to give you the best opportunity in life. I think that complete immersion in the character and not having any sort of life outside of it was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened, because I got to know that character, and got to play that character, and live that character in a way that had I had a relationship, or had I had friends, or had I had some kind of outside life that needed attending to, maybe I wouldn't have been so in it and so focused. And then that foundation has never gone because of the immersion.

“And it’s memories as well. What is a person or a character but a series of memories and experiences? So you know, at this point, I have such a bank of who Claire is already in me because I’ve lived through it and been through it in scenes and all those moments. It’s such a great foundation. Every season you’re just building on top of all of these rich experiences anyway. That’s the beauty of television; it’s the beauty of doing something in that long form. You actually get to, in some ways, create a living being within your own mind.”

‘Bubble of delusion’

When she moved to LA, she used to just tell herself that she was going to live in a “bubble of delusion” that her career was going to work out. She says she knew only one person in the city. She didn’t really know how to get around. She read about an acting class and started going to it. Aside from taking classes, she fell into the role of what she calls a professional friend.

“At the time I was not working, and so whoever needed a lift anywhere, whoever had a problem, I would be like ‘Yes, I’ll pick you up from the airport’, ‘Yes I’ll drop you off’, ‘Oh you’re having a fight with your boyfriend? I’ll come at 2am, that’s fine.’ ”

There was a long time, she says, where she was “sort of flailing in no-man’s land, just being like ‘I don’t know how to get an agent!’ ” But that “bubble of delusion” turned out to be harbouring a very real talent. Occasionally she would get one, small job. “It would be with good enough people to make me think, all right, if I can be in a scene with that person and not completely embarrass myself, then maybe I can [do this]. I guess somewhere I had that self-belief, even though it was probably buried quite far down at times. But I guess ultimately I was like: I can make this work.

“I mean, I think I’m pretty resilient,” she says, trying to think of her main personality traits. “I would like to say it’s my empathy or some bullshit like that. But somewhere, I always knew. I came to LA sort of late, but even before that, when I was working before, a lot of it is just having the f***ing balls and grit to stick around and be persistent in the face of a lot of rejection. But I think that also comes from having a belief that if [there is] something you love to do so much, something that feels that it comes naturally, that in some way it has to be what you’re meant to do. But I suppose a lot of people feel that way, so I don’t know. I don’t know why I had any more right to stick around that anyone else.”

After sticking around and succeeding, Balfe is now stepping up. She will return to series five of Outlander as a producer, alongside her co-star, Sam Heughan, who outside of Outlander excelled in last year's The Spy Who Dumped Me. Balfe is also writing, working on two Irish-focused projects, both at first draft stage, one that's just hers and another with a friend. "I'm not good when I get bored," Balfe says, "I get naughty when I get bored, yeah. I get mischievous. There's still a brat of a child inside me. Bored in school, swinging on a chair."

A needy place

As an actor, she says there are years where “you’re just asking permission to do your job when you’re starting out. You come from such a needy place. You walk into rooms and you’re like, ‘like me, like me’, you know? So then to get to a place where you’re like, oh, I’m allowed to have ambitions past that, or to give yourself permission to have ambitions past that is a big thing.”

With the conversation around gender equality in areas where women are under-represented in film and television ever amplifying, Balfe says it’s up to her and people like her to play their part in adjusting the imbalance.

Looking at why there are not enough women in positions of decision-making, we need to step up and become those numbers

“Looking at the power imbalance and why there are not enough women in positions of decision-making, you realise that a big part of that is also we need to step up and become those numbers, become those numbers of directors who are women, become those numbers of writers who are creating roles, and I think that was a big wake-up call for me, because it’s up to every single one of us to do our part. And so then it’s like, ‘Okay, well I’d like to do it.’ So, okay, stop f***ing beating around the bush about it. Just do it. The goal would be to at least try [directing] once and see if I’m any good. And that’s partly one of the projects that I’m writing – the goal is to direct that myself.”

It helps that Outlander has had multiple female directors at the helm, and that Balfe was directed by Jodie Foster in Money Monster. "She was hugely inspirational," she says of Foster, "Talking to her, her intellect is incredible. Oh man. Like, you know you go into a meeting and you think you're prepared? Obviously [Money Monster] was [about] the world of finance, and I'd read every Michael Lewis book and all my articles, and you walk in, and you have a conversation with her, and it's 'Okay, I'm so out of my depth.' She's amazing. She's not intellectual in a kind of arrogant way or not an intentionally intimidating way … She's so great. Her insights are so good."

‘There’s such inequality’

Changing the status quo on sets when it comes to gender will take time and effort and people. It will also take a shift in culture that extends far beyond the film and television industries. “I definitely think with our show, for season three, which we shot two years ago, we tried to do the entire season with female directors. It ended up we didn’t get quite the whole season, but it was more than 50 per cent.”

For any major television show, that’s a big deal. “Our writer’s room is very female-heavy, our exec producers – two male, two female – even in our executives it’s a lot of women,” Balfe says, “But when you look at the crews, maybe 95 per cent are men. A lot of that is tradition. Probably a big part of it is the crazy, crazy hours. If you look at young women coming into the business, they can make headway, but you don’t start reaching the peak of your experience in getting into those roles, the senior roles, until you’re in your mid-30s or late-30s, which is generally when women want to go have a kid if they want to have a kid … So many of the women disappear for those years and it’s impossible for them to come back, or come back in at the level they were at before. And that’s a massive problem in the industry.”

Male crew members, Balfe says, have partners who have had children throughout the duration of productions, and as many women will recognise in male-dominated fields, it’s a different proposition, “I can’t tell you how many of the guys, their girlfriends have all had kids, and they’ve all been able to have families, have this great job for five years, and it’s not affected them, except for maybe their sleep at night. They get to have it all. What do you do about it?”

Balfe speaks passionately and insightfully about such issues. “In our industry, the two major departments that are female-led are the two major departments that are paid the least and work the longest hours – and that’s costume, and hair and make-up. There’s such inequality. It’s okay to talk about the actors’ wages versus the actresses’ wages – that’s a problem – but generally we are in a position of privilege anyway, and now we have some visibility that we can speak out about it and hopefully get some reparations. But for the women who work behind [the scenes], it’s a head-scratcher. I don’t know what you do about that, but something has to be done. And if people want temperatures or cultures to change on sets, or behind the camera with all the departments there, it’s a holistic change that’s needed.”

Reconnecting with Ireland

Balfe, who turns 40 later this year, has now spent longer outside of Ireland than in it. The fada on her first name has disappeared. "I took it off for America, to make it easy," she once deadpanned on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, as part of the traditional conversation opener American talk show hosts reserve for the spelling of Irish actors' names.

I haven't worked in Ireland since I was 18. So much of your identity is where you're from. But the country where I'm from is completely different to the country I grew up in

It’s interesting, then, that her own projects seem to be looking back towards Ireland. “There’s some need for a reconnection or a going back,” she says. “Reconnecting with home. I mean, I’ve never worked as an actor in Ireland. I haven’t worked in Ireland since I was 18 years old. And it’s so funny because so much of your identity is where you’re from. But the country where I’m from is completely different to the country I grew up in.”

Balfe’s co-stars talk about her generosity as an actor, and her welcoming disposition. She champions their work outside of the show and bigs them up on social media. Doyle Kennedy mentions a moment when she realised Balfe had gone off and listened to her latest album, unprompted, and discussed it with her when she returned to set. “I think in essence what I’m trying to say about CB,” Doyle Kennedy writes by text message after we have a chat about Balfe, “is that she uses her position as #1 on the show for the good of all involved. She is aware of and supportive of the work of those around her and any changes she would look for would be for the communal good rather than some personal pay-off. As smart as she is gorgeous, she’s a welcoming force on set and in real life.”

Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column